The hilarious tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Ah, summer. What a great time of year. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that you can book open air theatre tickets and you won’t end up huddled in a camping chair wearing two jackets and a blanket, glancing anxiously at the sky and ready to dive for the poncho if the heavens open.

Well, that’s the idea anyway.

On Sunday, I went to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet by Changeling Theatre. It was my first time seeing them, although I’d heard good things from my mum and sister, who’ve been to several of their plays in the past. They’d previously been to see them at Rochester Castle, but this time we were heading to Boughton Monchelsea Place, just outside Maidstone. With gorgeous views across the deer park, and a 16th century house providing the backdrop for the play, it was a lovely venue, even in less than great weather.

The view from Boughton Monchelsea, Maidstone, Kent

There was no stage in the conventional sense, just a long, narrow area marked out on the ground – with a couple of tents serving as a backstage area – around which we set up our chairs and made ourselves comfortable. This arrangement allowed for a fair bit of audience participation, with the actors wandering among us, occasionally popping up behind someone’s chair and giving them a little fright. It also made for a very intimate experience that you don’t get in a more traditional theatre.

Romeo and Juliet is probably one of the plays I know best, having studied it at school and watched the Baz Luhrmann movie adaptation many, many times (don’t judge me, I was a teenager and it had Leo DiCaprio in it), but I’ve never seen it on stage before. And this might surprise you, but it was really funny – at least until people started getting murdered. Not so much after that. The Nurse (played by Katherine Heath) was the most obvious source of comedy, with her funny walk and seemingly endless assortment of voices, but Mercutio and Benvolio’s antics, including a drunken rendition of Meatloaf’s ‘I would do anything for love’, were a close second.

I also really enjoyed Jessica Rose Boyd’s performance as Juliet. During the first act she was giggly and excitable, as you might expect from a teenage girl in love, and taking it just a shade too far, to the point where at times even Romeo looked a bit scared. But this tendency towards the dramatic makes her character’s rash decisions in the second act that much more believable. And speaking of believable, it was easy to see why she fell for Ben Wiggins as Romeo. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

With a really small cast of I think about eight, some actors had to double up, but it was never confusing, and at times gave a whole new meaning to the text (the actor who played Tybalt returning as both the apothecary and the messenger, who fails to deliver the crucial letter to Romeo, made me look at that scene totally differently).

I guess I don’t need to worry about spoilers – there can’t be too many people who don’t know how Romeo and Juliet ends. But in case you’re one of them, you might want to look away now. The second act, in stark contrast to the first, was very short on laughs. From Romeo’s anguish at the thought of banishment from the city and the wife he loves, to Juliet’s despair when faced with betraying him and marrying the nice but incredibly dull Paris, the actors had us spellbound, and by the closing scene, when the young lovers meet their untimely end, you could have heard a pin drop.

Changeling’s Romeo and Juliet will be performed at various venues around Kent until 3rd August. All the details are on their website. If you enjoy Shakespeare (and don’t mind a little bit of mayhem), you should check them out. And if you go to Boughton Monchelsea – they’re back there in August – you might get to see a sunset like this on your way home…

Sunset over Boughton Monchelsea

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